Most people recover fully in 3 months after experiencing whiplash. During your recovery, medical treatments can help manage the symptoms.

Whiplash occurs when a person’s head moves backward and then forward suddenly with great force. This injury is most common following a rear-end auto collision. It can also result from physical abuse, sports injuries, or even amusement park rides.

Whiplash happens when the soft tissues (the muscles and ligaments) of your neck extend beyond their typical range of motion. Your symptoms might not appear for a while, so it’s important to pay attention to any physical changes for a few days following any crash or other injury event.

Whiplash is thought of as a relatively mild condition, but it can cause long-term pain and discomfort.

Whiplash occurs when the muscles in your neck suffer a strain because of a rapid movement backward and then forward. The sudden motion causes your neck’s tendons and ligaments to stretch and tear.

Some things that can cause whiplash include:

  • car collisions
  • physical abuse, such as being struck or shaken
  • contact sports, such as football, boxing, and some martial arts
  • horseback riding
  • cycling collisions or falls
  • falls in which the head violently jerks backward
  • blows to the head with a heavy object

Some people with whiplash experience chronic (long-term) pain or headaches for years after the event that caused the initial injury. Doctors may be able to trace this pain to damaged neck joints, discs, and ligaments. But chronic pain following a whiplash injury typically has no medical explanation.

Symptoms usually appear within 24 hours after the incident that caused the whiplash. Sometimes, symptoms may develop after a few days. They can last for several weeks.

Common symptoms include:

Less common symptoms associated with chronic whiplash include:

Most mild to moderate cases of whiplash can be treated at home using over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, ice, and other remedies.

You should see a doctor after an auto crash or other injury event, or if you have the following symptoms:

  • pain or stiffness in the neck that goes away and then comes back
  • severe neck pain
  • pain, numbness, or tingling in your shoulders, arms, or legs
  • any issues with your bladder or bowels
  • localized weakness in an arm or leg
Seek urgent care

You should follow up with a doctor immediately if:

  • your symptoms spread to your shoulders or arms
  • moving your head becomes painful
  • you have numbness or weakness in your arms

Your doctor will normally ask you questions about your injury, such as:

  • how it happened
  • where you feel pain
  • whether the pain is dull, shooting, or sharp

They may also do a physical exam to check your range of motion and look for areas of tenderness.

Your doctor might order imaging tests that will allow them to assess any damage or inflammation in the soft tissues, spinal cord, or nerves. They can also detect the presence of a brain injury. These imaging tests may include:

Rarely, a doctor will order diffuse tensor imaging (DTI) or positron emission tomography (PET scan), which will help find and measure the extent of an injury to the brain or other areas.

The treatments for whiplash are relatively simple. Doctors will often prescribe an OTC pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin.

Medical treatment

Other treatments include:


Physical therapy plays an important role in recovery. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist. Additionally, recovery may include:

You might also be given a foam collar to keep your neck stable. Collars should not be worn for more than 3 hours at a time. They should only be used the first couple of days after your injury. However, the use of collars has fallen out of favor for many doctors. It’s believed that using it more than the minimum time may slow healing.

Read more: No exercises needed to fix your posture.

Alternative aftercare

You may also want to try alternative remedies to treat pain. Some include:

Very few people have any long-term complications from whiplash. Usually, recovery time is anywhere from a few days to several weeks. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, most people recover fully within 3 months.